Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Queen of Bright And Shiny Things by Ann Aguirre

Sage Czinski describes herself as the "Queen of Bright and Shiny Things", a girl who goes around putting sticky notes on the lockers of kids who are having a bad day. The goths call her Princess Post-it but this doesn't bother Sage. All she hopes is that a bit of kindness balances out the bad in high school. Sage lives with her dad's half sister, her Aunt Gabby who she says has taught her "how to stop being angry about things I can't control." and attends JFK high school. She, who describes herself as someone who fits in with the "crunchy granola do-gooders" crowd belongs to the eco-awareness club.

Sage's best friend is Ryan McKenna, a six foot tall dork who befriended her three years ago when she first arrived at JFK. They've been best friends since then. Most people assume that she and Ryan are dating especially since he walks around with his arm on Sage's shoulder. But Ryan has never asked Sage out In Sage's math class, a new kid, Shane Cavendish, arrives. Almost immediately Shane draws negative attention from the jocks like Dylan Smith who shove him into lockers. After school, Sage runs into Shane in the conference room at the local public library where her eco group, Green World meets. She invites Shane to stay.

The next day Ryan tries to figure out Sage's relationship with Shane. She is shocked to hear Ryan make many assumptions about Shane based on his appearance. Sage learns that there are rumours going around about Shane from Dylan's mother. This leads her to question Ryan as to whether he's jealous. Shane continues to be bullied throughout the day by the jock squad. Sage knows she can't really leave a sticky note on his locker to support him but when she hears him making beautiful music in the music room this gives her a reason for a sticky note of support. The sticky note however makes her late for math class and gives her detention where she meets up with Shane. His black eye is proof that he's been sent there for fighting. He tells her that she knows nothing about living through bad times when Sage tells him that before her life with Aunt Gaby, life was not good.  Sage realizes that both of them have the same need; to be acknowledged and to have someone who cares.

When Sage and Ryan get together one evening for a movie, Ryan admits to Sage that he has been hooking up with a much older girl who is college age. Shocked and attempting to keep her anger in check, Sage questions Ryan as to why he did this and why he lets people believe they are a couple when he's been secretly with someone else. She tells Ryan that they are finished for now, although she doesn't rule out the possibility of being friends again some day. The next day at school, people are shocked at their "break-up".

With Ryan out of her life for the time being, Sage decides to pursue loner, Shane. At the same time, Lila Tremaine, the goth-like girl who has a locker near her, wants to be her friend. Lila used to be Dylan Smith's girlfriend but she broke up with him when he began to spread rumours about her.  Meanwhile Dylan begins spreading rumours that Sage is a lesbian. When Shane doesn't show up for classes, Sage decides to get his schedule so she can take his assignments to his house. After sneakily discovering where he lives, Sage rides out to his house which turns out to be a run down trailer bringing him his assignments and some food. Shane tells Sage that his mother became sick with cancer when he was twelve and that his father left when he was fourteen, unable to cope with her illness. After his mother's death Shane lived with a friend of his mother's but got into lots of trouble, enough that he risked being sent into juvie. Shane avoided going into foster care by having his father purchase the trailer home for him in exchange for Shane taking care of himself. Sage leaves feeling disappointed because Shane tells her he needs a friend and she want to be more than just a friend to him.

Shane joins Sage at her lunch table with her new friends since her break-up with Ryan. He also becomes involved in the eco group, helping to clean up an abandoned lot. In school Sage begins working harder, participating more in chemistry rather than letting Ryan do all the work and her marks begin to improve in geometry because of Shane's tutoring. She also begins inviting Lila over to her Aunt Gabby's which makes her aunt happy to see that she is beginning to socialize more. Aunt Gabby encourages Sage to forgive Ryan after she learns what happened between the two of them.

Shane and Sage's relationship continues to develop. On a tip from Sage's Aunt Gabby, Shane gets a job at P&K, he moves his stuff into her locker, and they go out on their first date which ends with them spending the night at Sage's house. On a date at the Coffee House, Shane fills in for an injured musician and his set is so good that he is offered an ongoing gig once per week. However when Sage tries to micro-manage Shane's life, he gets mad and this leads Sage to reconsider how she treats him. He shows up at the Curly Q, where Sage works part time and apologizes, telling her she is "the only person in the world who gives a shit about me,"

At a party at "the Barn", Dylan confronts Lila, leading Sage to intercede on her friend's behalf. She tells him and his jock friends to stay away from Lila, threatening to expose his mother's affair with Principal Warick. Lila warns Sage that Dylan has a reputation for not letting anything go unchallenged. Lila proves to be right when a few days later Dylan runs Sage off the road with his pickup truck and threatens her. Sage discovers that Dylan has been dealing with his mother's hook-up behaviour since he was thirteen. This makes her realize that he's trying to protect his mother. Dylan tells her that if she backs off he won't harrass her. He tells her that he has to be a scary bully at school so that kids won't mess with his mother. When Sage refuses his offer, Dylan tells her he will start digging to uncover her secrets. Little does Sage know she has set in motion events that will change all their lives irrevocably.


The Queen of Bright and Shiny Things will appeal to those who love novels about high school life and particularly ones filled with plenty of drama and romance. The novel can be divided into three sections; the first part sets the stage and presents the reader with the main characters while foreshadowing the future conflict between Sage and Dylan, the second part develops Sage and Shane's relationship as Sage begins to blossom after cutting ties with Ryan while the third section features the inevitable showdown between Sage and Dylan and the changes that brings about.

Readers are drawn into the story by the hints Sage drops about her past. She frequently mentions that she keeps a tight rein on her alter-ego, "Shadow Sage" who is the angry version of the eco-warrior, queen of positive-thinking Sage. As her story unfolds, it parallels that of Shane's. Both lost parents they were close to, both ended up in group homes after the remaining parent neglected to act responsibly and both have anger problems. But both characters are also trying to rehabilitate their lives and change for the better. It is this journey that appeals to readers.

Sage undergoes two transformations. In the beginning of the novel Sage has a very limited life; she's Ryan's "friend" and really has no other friends. When she moved to her aunt's home three years ago and began attending JFK, she was frightened and lonely. Ryan immediately came to her rescue for reasons Sage is not sure of. Although everyone assumes they are a couple, Ryan has never asked Sage out. In chemistry class Ryan is her partner and Sage coasts, taking notes but not really participating in the experiments. Although she participates in the eco club which Ryan too is a part of, it is her unhealthy reliance on him that prevents Sage from developing her own life. Once they break up however, Sage begins to reach out and it is Shane's situation and her concern for him that helps her do so. Without Ryan hovering around her constantly she makes a new friend in Lila Tremaine, who is the very opposite type of girl Sage would normally hang out with. She begins participating in chemistry class,taking the initiative in the labs, something noticed by her teacher. She begins bringing friends home much to her aunt's delight.

The second transformation involves Sage dealing with her past and the anger she has carried around with her for years. The basis for Sage's deep-rooted anger is eventually revealed bit by bit throughout the novel. Sage is afraid people will learn about her past and that their opinion of her will change. Afraid she will be defined by her anger she repeatedly tells herself to keep "Shadow Sage" under control. To achieve this, Sage makes a point of putting a sticky note on at least one person's locker during the day. Initially she brought sticky notes to school to help her get through the day but when she offered encouragement to a girl one day through a sticky note, Sage loved the good feeling this gave her. Her Aunt Gabby has told her "if you put positivity out into the world, it will come back to you tenfold." Sage doesn't know if this is true but in the end the support she gets from friends and all the people she cheered up through her sticky notes does come back to ease her pain when Dylan wreaks havoc on her and Shane's lives.

Sage also struggles to keep her anger, personified by Shadow Sage in check and this struggle is featured throughout her narrative. When Ryan puts down Shane during lunch with Sage, making sweeping assumptions about him. "I almost get mad at Ryan then, but that -- no. For a few seconds, I'm woozy and scared; this can't happen. So I take four deep breaths..." Sage who has been taken in by her father's half sister, feels she must constantly put on a positive front and control her anger for fear of being sent back to the group home. "...she doesn't realize how tough it is not to backslide after a bad day. I keep my temper under lock and key and, mostly, I'm okay. I treat rage like an alien that hides in a corner of my brain...If I lose it, even once, I'll have to go back, which is why I take such care never to lose my temper."

When Dylan Smith begins harassing her friend, Sage begins to allow her anger to rise. "Shadow Sage surges to the front of my brain, all darkness and destruction. She knows exactly how to break this little shit, and for the first time in three years, I'm going to let her." At this point Sage believes that she is still the person she was years ago when she was responsible for her mother's death. Readers don't learn about what really happened to Sage until later in the novel but at this point she states, "...I'm only playing the role of nice girl; I've spent a portion of my life as something else entirely."

But when the harassment continues, Sage with the help of Lila decides to retaliate in a way that does not hurt Dylan's mom but shows Dylan they are not going to let him get away with his bad behaviour.This demonstrates that Sage is not the out of control angry person she believed herself to be. And in fact after the actions of Sage, Shane and Dylan have played out, Sage is able to forgive Dylan enough to allow him to help with the garden planning. And she even leaves a post-it note on his locker telling him things will get better. "Since he offered an olive branch at Green World's garden day, I can, too. Maybe if the rest of the school see that I can forgive him, they'll move on."

This novel is filled with many themes; forgiveness, identity, and acceptance. It's wonderful to see Sage and Shane care for one another. Sage and Shane recognize their brokenness but love one another anyways. Shane's unconditional love for Sage gives her the strength to continue on in the wake of Dylan's revelations and Shane's arrest.

The Queen of Bright and Shiny is a great summer read complete with a heady romance, two characters with interesting back stories and a villain who ends up redeemed at the end. Readers will love Shane, the cute boyfriend who plays guitar and has that brooding inner strength that makes him appealing.

Book Details:

The Queen of Bright and Shiny by Ann Aguirre
New York: A Fiewel and Friends Book         2015
328 pp.

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